cool ain't shit (a continuing series)

Posted on September 12th, 2007 by Scraps.
Categories: 70s Survival, Music, Music Criticism.

No one wants to hear that something they like is crap. People will come to that conclusion on their own -- and often enough enjoy the crap anyway -- but no one, expressing a sincere appreciation of something, is interested in being told why it's crap. And why should they be? If someone shows me how to like something, they have enlarged my life. What do they do for me by teaching me how to dislike something? Especially since what I've been probably taught is not how to dislike something but why. The visceral reaction -- I like it -- will remain, even if I am only muttering it to myself.

Of course there are good reasons to write negative criticism. It's useful to explore the way one's own taste works; it can articulate things for other people who share your reaction; there are few things that are perfect, and analyzing flaws is interesting, and can improve one's appreciation of things one likes; etc. But anyone who trashes something and thinks they're setting anyone straight -- thinks they're doing anything other than writing for the people who agree with them -- is fooling themself. I write some cutting things, but I don't imagine or hope to change anyone's mind. I'll defend my opinions only as things that are there, not the whole thing; part of the truth, not The Truth.

A friend reacted with incredulity to my assertion that the Captain and Tennille's version of "Shop Around" could stand with the original. (By which, to be clear, I don't mean it's necessarily the equal of the original; I mean that it does not shame the original, and more than adequately justifies its own existence.) The friend said his faith in my taste was badly shaken -- I'm not sure how rhetorically he meant this -- and invited me to convince him. This didn't make me angry -- it's par for the course in casual music opinion-slinging -- but it did solidify a position I've been working toward for years. Which is: I'm not going to justify my reactions, and I'm not going to try to convince anyone. Explain, yes -- this is why I like what I like -- but not justify; not participate in the social hierarchy of taste, not try to move the Captain and Tennille up the ladder nor put deodorant powder on the stink of my appreciation for them. Your resistance is your own, and I'm not going to make extra effort to overcome it.

I invited the response by saying "yes it is" after my initial assertion: a rhetorical acknowledgment that I was making an extraordinary claim that was bound to be questioned. I oughtn't do that. I am interested in explorations of the social hierarchies of taste -- the kind Phil Ford does at Dial M for Musicology, for example -- but I want to keep those hierarchies out of my own reactions to music. Much of the point of the Seventies Song Survival project is to come at everything with fresh ears, as much as possible. Hearing the Captain and Tennille's cover of "Shop Around" as though for the first time was exciting, intensely pleasurable, a kind of joy. And I'm long past the point of needing to define myself to others by my taste in art.

17 comments.

Jason

Comment on September 12th, 2007.

We had another one of our '80s gigs last weekend, and a respected friend of mine gave me a critique afterwards. He didn't like the fact that I opened up the concert by saying something to the effect of "we're going to play some crappy music for you."

This is something I grew accustomed to saying at open mic performances, something to excuse the fact that I always ended up following an earnest singer-songwriter pouring his heart out. But my friend pointed out that even if I were to use it in cases like that one, in this particular instance we were playing a show for people who wanted to hear this music and who didn't think it was crappy, and I shouldn't make comments like that, essentially apologizing for playing music that I felt was generally reviled.

This relates back to what you're saying: nobody should ever have to justify why they like what they like, and in the future, I'm going to try and remember that. When I perform the tunes, I don't act like I'm apologizing for them; I revel in their cheesiness, and more times than not, that tends to win over a crowd (and if it doesn't, fuck 'em). If I'm not going to apologize while performing them, I shouldn't apologize while describing them.

I posted a link recently to a Stephen King article in EW, essentially saying that the phrase "guilty pleasure" should be banned, for it implies you're not supposed to like something that you like. His article, my friend's comment, and your post today have all been strong reminders of this general sentiment, and I think I'm finally ready for a real change in thinking.

(I can't promise I'll stop doing it when I write about Mellow Gold, though; some of that stuff really IS crap.)

Scraps

Comment on September 12th, 2007.

Yeah, it's going to take me awhile to get it out of my system, I think. Every time I try to eliminate some way of speaking -- usually defensive or reflexively self-critical stuff -- it's chagrining to become aware of how much of it I do.

And there are times when I'm going to talk about a song's reputation, because it can be an interesting part of the story. I'm unlikely to stop using "underrated", for instance, though I think I'll use it less.

Richard

Comment on September 12th, 2007.

I agree with your post, but I think people take the term "guilty pleasure" way too seriously. OF COURSE there are guilty pleasures. All it's ever meant to me is that you (I) recognize the wrongness of a given thing (in your own conception of quality--not some nonexistent "objective" standard--it's kind of bad), but nevertheless take pleasure from it. It never occurred to me that it was something people felt actual guilt from.

Certainly I ignored and dismissed out of hand mainstream pop for years, and when I realized I liked, say, Britney Spears' "Toxic", knew that friends would look askance at my saying so--but that is a genuinely good song, and I didn't shy away from admitting it. I gather that, to some, this would be categorized as a guilty pleasure, because it's the kind of thing that one might feel the need to hide from one's peer group. But for me it wasn't. There is a school of criticism that says that anything we like (get pleasure from) is, to us, "good". I don't agree with this. (Am I alone in having conceived of guilty pleasures in this fashion?)

I don't have any well-developed opinion on Stephen King's novels, but every EW column of his I've ever read has been poorly written and ill-conceived, and Jason's brief representation of his calling for the banning of the idea of the guilty pleasure just reminds me of his annoying defensiveness about allegedly not being taken seriously.

Richard

Comment on September 12th, 2007.

I know you like the Dismemberment Plan; this column/review seems relevant to this post.

Scraps

Comment on September 12th, 2007.

I don't think people feel actual guilt from what they call guilty pleasures, but I do think they feel insecurity; that they are paying homage to the Cool Kids. I like it, but of course I know it's really crap, so I'm still cool, okay? Even if I'm not quite as cool as the people who told me what was cool and what wasn't.

I don't think that anything that I take pleasure from is good, but I will go to the wall to defend the idea that anything I take pleasure from contains good.

Thanks for the link! Pitchfork drives me crazy, because they are a valuable resource that periodically get driven round the bend by Attitude. That Travis Morrison review was one example; a post-Napster Metallica smackdown (also a 0.0, I think) was another. Times you wish they would just grow up.

ethan

Comment on September 12th, 2007.

Richard, I hope you learned the lesson to never ignore mainstream pop and dismiss it out of hand again. That means ignoring and dismissing a hell of a lot of great music.

PS OMG I totally agree, Scraps. F'rinstance, I don't feel guilty (or whatever the appropriate word would be) for liking Britney Spears (I have and love her best of and two of her albums) any more than I do for, say, reading science fiction--another thing Certain People would like me to feel guilty for--or enjoying gory movies. I likes what I likes. And for that matter, I doesn't like what I doesn't like--no amount of pressure will ever get me to like The Police or U2.
PPS Genre is never an indicator of quality.
PPPS Except in the case of American Third Wave Ska.

Scraps

Comment on September 12th, 2007.

(I also am slowly coming to the conclusion -- I think, not sure yet -- that I am really fundamentally uninterested in the question of whether something is good.)

Richard

Comment on September 13th, 2007.

Yeah, I think was overthinking it.

As for mainstream pop, well I still basically ignore it, but that's because I don't have a lot of time on my hands (blog commenting evidence to the contrary!). The difference is that I definitely do not dismiss it out of hand.

Richard

Comment on September 13th, 2007.

Re: Pitchfork. I agree with the point in the Dusted article about how seriously people take the numerical ratings. I started reading Pitchfork in 1999, I think. I've learned about a lot of music through the site, and they have had some excellent writers (as well as some really bad ones) writing for them. But in the early days of my reading the site, they had a lot of attitude and were snotty, but it didn't seem (to me anyway) that they actually took themselves all that seriously. The reviews, at their best, were entertaining, and the numerical ratings often seemed to be jokes (sometimes self-consciously indicated as such in the body of the review). I recall being disappointed when they posted a chart explaining what each range of numbers meant; it was symbolic, I thought, of a sense that they were all too aware of their nascent power and were starting to buy into it.

The first review that really pissed me off was the notorious 0.0 given to Sonic Youth's NYC Ghosts & Flowers. Not only was it ignorant and poorly argued, it was an attack on an idea, and the nature of that attack irritated me. The hive-mind mentality at the site that Dusted identifies is really in evidence with that album. Every reference to it since then has been dismissive. Meanwhile, every SY record in the interim--each of which I like a lot, mind you--has been praised to hilt, each more "accessible" than the last. Etc. Fortunately, Sonic Youth can do whatever the fuck they want and are not likely to be seriously affected by such a review, unlike arguably Travis Morrison.

Sorry, I seem to ridden in on my hobby-horse!

(Side-note: I often have a hard time reading the security word when I try to comment.... I'm not sure what there is to do about that, but I thought I'd mention it.)

Lizzie

Comment on September 13th, 2007.

I agree, scraps.

We used to play a game on long drives in which we would challenge each other to come up with a band who had never had one good song. You had to admit to guilty pleasures - that is, songs that the cool kids might diss but that you just liked. It was actually fairly hard to do, and a lot of fun. I think the only one I've been able to name is Black Oak Arkansas. Maybe Banarama, since I've been reminded of them lately on radionigel.com

ethan

Comment on September 13th, 2007.

Lizzie: Nickelback.

And even if you don't like Banarama, you should give their version of "Aie a Mwana" and the songs they did with Fun Boy Three a chance. Or, you know, I think you should.

ethan

Comment on September 13th, 2007.

Bee Tee Double-Yew, Scraps, I hope you don't mind if I extensively quote you (with attribution and link) over at my place. If you do I'll get rid of it and just link instead.

Lizzie

Comment on September 13th, 2007.

Well, it was the Bananarama version of "It Ain't What You Do, It's The Way That You Do It" with Fun Boy Three that made me really, really hate them. But I'll look for "Aie a Mwana". And Nickelback, just to see.

Robert Legault

Comment on September 13th, 2007.

Whoa, I seem to have set off a mini-firestorm. Not my intention.

OK, first of all, let me say that I hope you know me well enough to know that I was being at least slightly facetious in the extremity of my response. We have enough hours-long arguments under our belts about the merits or lack thereof of Gilbert O'Sullivan or Elvis that you should know that while I may not agree with you on a lot of things, I do respect your opinions (and that in fact, there are many intersections of agreement in our tastes).

And if I found myself thinking "How can he possibly like that!?" during your residence at the Space Age Bachelor Hovel, it was far more likely to be about alterna-noise than about polished pop. I, too, like plenty of sappy pop records, and anyone who doesn't believe me is welcome to count the Shelley Fabares tracks in my iTunes. What's more, I snagged a copy of the latest Hilary Duff CD from a swag pile and quite liked it. Ditto for Donny Osmond's Love Songs of the '70s, to a lesser extent.

So while the Captain and Tennille might be getting a little into the saccharine side for me, I accept that they make polished pop that is actually painless enough, even pleasant.

But we're talking about Smokey Robinson, a near-godlike presence to my classmates and me growing up. Now, we may have had a little miscommunication semantically. To me, when you say something "can stand with" something else, it means it as good as or better than the other thing. I'm quite willing to accept that tC&T's version of "Shop Around" is good and that taken on its own terms, it's a good, even a fine record. I've been known to say the same thing about Pat Boone's version of "At My Front Door" in relation to the Eldorados'.

For me, one of the things that makes the Miracles' record so incredible are the stinging guitar lines of Marv Tarplin, and there are few who can match him. Also, and more important, Smokey's voice is a unique instrument: impossibly high, almost girlish, yet full of power. And able to take his own literate lyrics and bend them, stretch them, scream them in an unmatched blend of erudition and raw soul. Toni Tennile is a good enough singer, but her range, literal and emotional, is far more limited.

Still, as I said, you're welcome to give it a spin next time I see you (which i hope will be soon; it's been awhile), and I promise to listen with as open a mind as I can muster.

I do generally agree with you about negative criticism, though that doesn't mean I don't enjoy reading it.

Coincidentally, right after I posted the remarks that set this off, I heard for the first time something I'd known in the back of mind existed: the Miracles' alternate take of "Shop Around" (aka the "local version"), on the unbelievably awesome Complete Motown Singles 1959-1962 box set. It's considerably gentler and more folky by comparison to the "national version." Maybe Daryl Dragon and his love heard that version.

And incidentally, Donny sings "Alone Again Naturally" on that new CD. It's not bad, but I don't quite think it stacks up to Gilbert.

Robert Legault

Comment on September 13th, 2007.

I mean on the 1962 box, which I have some of. And which is also unbelievably awesome.

Scraps

Comment on September 14th, 2007.

Wow, I didn't expect to stir up this much response.

A few quick things:

Evan, I don't mind at all. Thanks for asking. So far as I'm concerned, you don't need to ask permission when you're crediting and providing a link.

Robert: I hope it's understood that first, I wasn't upset by what you said -- it's part of the normal give and take of music conversation -- and second, I am only speaking for myself and not presuming to dictate an attitude for anyone else. Your comment just helped bring into focus things I've been ruminating over already; my own attitude toward music, and which kinds of writing and conversation about music I am interested in pursuing.

I envy you the Motown singles boxes, which I haven't been able to persuade myself to afford.

Richard, yeah, that Sonic Youth review is another example. Their tiresome, childish campaign of mockery against Wolfie was another. Pitchfork is a split personality: half of it loves the great variety of music, and celebrates all forms, not just the obscure and cool but often enough the once-disdained now-reappraised. The other half only wants to tell us what's what, thinks a sneer is a penetrating analysis, and commits absurdities of cool like naming a pedestrian hard rock album by And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead the album of the year.

I'm sorry about the security words; I should probably remove a couple of the silly fonts, but I don't know which ones are causing trouble.

Robert Legault

Comment on September 14th, 2007.

I was right the first time; it's the '59-'61 box. Didn't have it handy (I was on downtime at [popular national weekly].)

As for Motown boxes:

http://toffeesoul.blogspot.com/

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